The Sunday Edition

Aren't you too old for that? The late life plunge into a PhD

A truck driver, bartender, activist and justice consultant share stories of their bold decision to take up a PhD later in their lives.

More students are taking up a PhD later in life — even with no intention of finding work in their field

Val Napoleon, now a University of Victoria law professor, decided to study for a PhD just as she was becoming a grandmother. (University of Victoria)
Listen35:41

Originally published on October 14, 2018.

When Val Napoleon returned to university to study law, she was one of only two grandparents in her program.

After earning a law degree in her early 40s, she went on to pursue a PhD. She defended her dissertation in 2009 at the age of 53. 

Today, Napoleon is a celebrated Indigenous scholar and a law professor at the University of Victoria.

She's also the director of a new Indigenous law degree program, which the university describes as the world's first.

For her, graduate school was "a type of driver's licence," she told The Sunday Edition.

"It was a way for me to get to places that I wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to get into."

Val Napoleon, left, is the director of UVic's new Indigenous Law Degree program. (University of Victoria)

Doctoral programs are evolving to address "the changing workplace… job redundancies owing to automation and people needing to upskill later in life," said Matthew McKean, associate director of education at the Conference Board of Canada.

Data from Statistics Canada shows that in 1992, 471 students over the age of 50 enrolled in full-time PhDs. By 2015, that grew to some 2,430, which reflects a "lifelong learning" narrative emerging within post-secondary education in Canada, McKean said.

Making up for lost time

For Lisa Armstrong, taking up a PhD was an opportunity to make up for lost time.

After a troubled relationship with high school, Armstrong turned to bartending and exotic dancing to support her two children as a single mother.

But when her oldest son went off to university, it sparked a desire to learn again.

"I was so excited for him and I really wanted some of that myself," she said. "I was really mourning for the opportunities I felt that I had missed out on when I was younger."

So she enrolled in an undergraduate program, even sharing classes with some of her son's friends.

Now, at the age of 44, she's a PhD student in applied linguistics at Carleton University, researching sexual harassment in the hospitality industry.

Lisa Armstrong is a PhD student in applied linguistics at Carleton University. Before graduate school, she worked as a bartender and exotic dancer. (Donya Ziaee/CBC)

Armstrong says she has her sights set on an academic job after she completes her degree, but notes she's faced pushback for her aspirations. She recalled being told by a professor that she was "kind of too old" and didn't have "enough work years left" to secure an academic job.

"I didn't take very kindly to that," Armstrong said. But she remained undeterred.

"For me it always seemed intuitively that it would be worth doing."

Learning for the sake of learning​

But not all older students see PhDs as a pathway to a career.

"[People my age] are doing it out of love of learning... There was never any question for me that I was somehow embarking on a new career," said Brian Pollick, who is completing a PhD in 14th century Italian art history at the University of Victoria.

Before he retired, the 72-year-old worked in the justice field, including as the executive director of the John Howard Society of Alberta.

Brian Pollick (left) and his wife, Heather Lindstedt, holding an early Latin manuscript they helped the University of Victoria acquire with their financial assistance. After years in the justice field, Pollick is now a PhD student in art history. (Submitted by Brian Pollick)

Pollick says his inspiration for doing a PhD came "like an epiphany" during a post-retirement trip to Italy with his wife, when they saw an exhibit featuring the works of Pompeo Batoni, a mid-18th century painter.

"Somehow, I just knew within moments of being in that exhibition that what I wanted to do was art history."

'I've always wanted to be in the class'

Pollick sees many advantages to pursuing a PhD at his stage in life with no career ambitions in mind.

For younger students who are hoping to find academic work with their degrees, the PhD comes with a great deal of intensity and anxiety, he says.

"What's not there [for me] is the sense that I've got to do this because the rest of my life depends on it. And that's a huge difference, in that it takes away so much of the pressure."

McKean admits that most conversations in post-secondary education haven't caught up to this demographic.

"Universities are ideally spaces for learning for learning's sake," he said. "But the need for employability and job readiness has become much more urgent than it was in the past."

Victor Malins agrees. At 63 years old, he is a first-year PhD student in British history at York University.

When he's not reading history books, Malins is out on his truck, delivering snack cakes as an independent distributor for Vachon Bakery.

Victor Malins is a part-time PhD student in British history. When he's not studying, he delivers Vachon cakes as an independent distributor. (Submitted by Victor Malins)

"I always sit in the class … and I think to myself, 'how many of these people actually want to be here?'" 

"I want to be here," Malins added, noting that many younger students are in class because they feel they have to be.

"They're after the piece of paper at the end and they don't care… I've never had that. I've always wanted to be in the class."

Pollick, the art historian, feels the same way.

"I still love my topic. I'm still excited by it. I haven't for a moment said, 'Ah, why did I do this?'" 

As for his advice to others who might be considering a PhD later in life?

"It's a pretty intense journey but it can just be so satisfying," he said. "If you want to do it, do it. And do it joyfully."


To hear more about these students' stories, click 'listen' above for the full documentary. 

Written and produced by Donya Ziaee.

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